After a 518 day enforced break caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Motorsport UK Pirelli Welsh National Rally Championship roars back into action next weekend at the Nicky Grist Stages on Saturday 10 July– where one of the largest number of championship contenders will be gunning for points in their pursuit of title success.
Covid-19 restrictions have seen motorsport in Wales halted, barring a few exceptions, since the Visit Conwy Cambrian Rally on 8 February 2020.
But now, finally, rallying in the Welsh forests is returning – with an unprecedented demand for places on the start list, a quantity field of drivers and co-drivers and a vast array of cars unlike anything seen for many years.
The inclusive Pirelli Welsh National Rally Championship class structure witnesses an incredible wide range of cars represented, driven by former champions, old rivals, newcomers, juniors and the strongest ever contingent from England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man – all aiming to beat the proudly patriotic and famously fast Welsh home grown rally talent.
Former Pirelli Welsh National Rally champions preparing for battle are the 2019 (and defending) overall title winners Matthew Hirst/Declan Dear in their Mitsubishi Evo IX. They are joined by the 2018 driver champion Dylan Davies/Mark Glennerster (Škoda Fabia R5), the 2017 driver champion Callum Black/Michael Gilbey (Ford Fiesta R5) and the 2000 champions Pete Littler/Andy Marchbank (Ford Escort Mk2).
They’ll be under pressure from the likes of Ian Bainbridge/Will Atkins, who scored maximum Welsh National Rally Championship points on the 2020 Cambrian Rally and won last December’s Rali Adfer Coedwigoedd Cymru test event, in their Škoda Fabia R5, 2019 championship runners-up Russ Thompson/Andy Murphy in their Mitsubishi Evo IX, Wug Utting/Bob Stokoe in their Subaru Impreza STi N12B, Nik Elsmore/Craig Drew in their Mitsubishi Evo IX and Martyn and Dawn England, who have swapped their Ford Fiesta R5+ for a Mitsubishi Evo X.
Also in new cars for this year is the 2019 Welsh Junior champion, Tom Llewellin, co-driven on this occasion by Ross Whittock, who makes his competition debut in a four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Mirage, while Paul Walker/Geraint Thomas have exchanged their Mitsubishi for a Subaru Impreza.
With great rallies to learn their skill and the lure of a magnificent prize of a test drive in a PCRS Rallysport-prepared Hyundai i20 R5, courtesy of OnThePaceNote, the Junior category is buoyant again this year – with the likes of George Lepley/Tom Woodburn competing in their Mitsubishi Evo X, Ioan Lloyd/Sion Williams moving up from the Formula 1000 Junior Championship (and a few great road rally results) in a Peugeot 208 R2 and Zak Hughes/Ian Beamond in their Renault Twingo R2 Evo.
Other Under 25 year old hard chargers to look out for include Aoife Raftery/Dylan Doonan (Ford Fiesta), Charlie Todd/Glyn Thomas (Ford Fiesta), Gethin Price/Matthew Baddeley (Nissan Micra), Jason Black/Karl Egan (Toyota Starlet) and Maxx Bradshaw/Liam Andrew Whiteley, who travel from the Isle of Man in their Mitsubishi Evo III.
Nicky Grist will lead by example and watch his own rally on the internet from his home.
This year’s Nicky Grist Stages is being run behind closed doors, with no spectators permitted in any of the stages nor the service area – which is moving from the centre of Builth Wells to the Royal Welsh Showground in Llanelwedd.
In addition to Special Stage TV filming every competitor from as many stages as possible, and broadcasting the live action on its Facebook page (facebook.com/specialstage), various championships – including the Motorsport UK British Rally Championship, MRF Tyres BTRDA Rally Series and Pirelli Welsh Rally Championship – will also be following the event live on their own social media platforms, with additional coverage on RallyFM.net.
The Quinton Motor Club-organised event will therefore host one of the largest live online broadcast productions ever seen on a UK rally outside the WRC – and not even the event’s title sponsor will be anywhere near the stages, but enjoying the action from his sofa instead.
“I have to travel to Builth Wells to deliver the trophies, and after that I’ll be heading back home,” said Nicky.
“I’d love to go out and watch on the stages, like I do every year, but I’ve no reason to be there and I feel it’s important to set a good example. I sponsor the event, but come the day of the rally I’m just a spectator – and I have to respect, just like everyone else has to, that no spectators are allowed.
“There is currently a heavy amount of military training on the Epynt range, and we are very grateful to the MOD for allowing the rally to use parts of its land this year.
Action from the 2021 Nicky Grist Stages is streamed live, alongside live online timing and a new online tracking system (rallytracking.co.uk) which will follow every car through every stage.
2021 Motorsport UK Pirelli Welsh National Rally Championship calendar
10 July….Nicky Grist Stages
4 September….Eventsigns Woodpecker Stages
16 October….Winner Garage ŠKODA Wyedean Rally
30 October….Visit Conwy Cambrian Rally
13 November….Rallynuts Stages Rally
Batteries fully charged, as Matt Edwards prepares for maiden forest rally in his Yuasa Rally Team Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
The Nicky Grist Stages won’t be easy, as it will be Matt Edwards’ first gravel rally for 17 months and his forest event in his Yuasa Rally Team Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 – yet the double British Rally champion is aiming for a strong finish to maintain the great start he has made to his title defence.
Matt, who won back-to-back BRC drivers’ titles in 2018 and 2019, took the Melvyn Evans Motorsport-run Polo GTI R5 to fourth place on the opening Neil Howard Stages, a time penalty the only thing denying him a podium finish on his first event in the Pirelli-shod car.
But with only 50 asphalt stages miles around the Oulton Park race circuit under his belt, his first loose surface rally in the Polo GTI R5 will be a tough one – especially as the classic mid-Wales stages used on the upcoming event are so well known, and the relatively short stage distance leaves little time to recover from anything other than a flat-out start. Knowing where the absolute limit of the car from the first corner onwards is therefore key, and Matt will somehow have to try and overcome his lack of seat time in the Yuasa, TPS and Swift Group-backed machine in order to challenge for victory against a top quality field.
At least Matt knows the event well, as the 36-year-old from Colwyn Bay has contested the Nicky Grist Stages seven times before – and the Polo GTI R5 will be sixth different car he’s used!